General Olusegun Obasanjo, the former Nigerian head of state, is being held under house arrest by the Nigerian military regime and is not allowed to travel, receive guests or telephone calls. He was to have been a panellist at the conference, talking on Britain's role in spreading "good government".
"We have just heard that he is not going to be allowed to attend," a Foreign Office spokesman said last night. A statement issued by the Foreign Office deplored his detention and said: "We had hoped that President Abacha would respond positively to a direct expression of concern and allow Mr Obasanjo to travel to the Britain for the World conference."
Lord Callaghan, the former prime minister, has also stepped in to try to secure the release of General Obasanjo. He telephoned Nigeria's military ruler, General Sani Abacha, to demand his release. The president told Lord Callaghan that General Obasanjo would be allowed to travel after the investigation was completed and if it cleared him, but said that the charges against him were serious.
It also emerged that although the French and American ambassadors had secured brief meetings last week with General Obasanjo at his farm at Otta near Lagos, the British High Commissioner, John Thorold Masefield, had been unable to see him.
The general, who is also a "roving ambassador" for the United Nations, was released from solitary confinement last Friday after a week-long investigation into an alleged failed coup attempt. Government security officers are reported forcibly to have terminated his meeting with the French ambassador last Friday.
The question of British influence is partly answered by the absence of General Obasanjo today, but the one-day conference is also aimed at answering questions about British interest and policy. It will bring together some 600 politicians, diplomats, academics, businessmen and others at the Queen Elizabeth Conference Centre in London.
The main speakers, who include the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary, and Henry Kissinger, will set the agenda for a public discussion on Britain's place in the world, its commercial and political interests, and its diplomatic and business methods. The Prince of Wales will also address the meeting.
Among the fundamental questions on the agenda are: Do we need a global foreign and security policy? What is the role of the armed services in supporting British objectives? and Where do Britain's world-wide economic interests lie? Some have interpreted this unprecedented self-examination by the Establishment as a sign of lack of direction in British foreign policy at sea in a turbulent post-Cold War world.
Others see the problem as being not so much a turbulent world as a deeply divided Britain, divided over Europe and participation in global affairs. Another school of thought sees it as an exercise in self justification by the Foreign Office, faced with demanding cuts in embassies and diplomatic posts by the Treasury.
Leading article, page 18